What Women Want


Kerry Howley has a sharp review-essay about feminism in Bookforum. The article is too wide-ranging to summarize, so I'll limit myself to a link and two excerpts. The first quote riffs on Sheila Rowbotham's new history Dreamers of a New Day: Women Who Invented the Twentieth Century:

"Feminism doesn't mean anything anymore" is a sentiment I've heard quite a bit over the past few years, and reading Rowbotham, one wonders what long-lost past of feminist cohesion is being invoked. You can be fairly sure that a thirty-year-old American self-identified feminist today is a fan of birth control, Medicare, and democracy. In 1890 one could make no such assumptions about a pro-woman radical. She might well support free love but think condoms a tool of the sex-mad patriarchy; she might want to socialize housework or smash the state. One is struck, paging through this idiosyncratic survey of nineteenth- and twentieth-century thinkers, by the enthusiasm for a kind of fluid, shape-shifting self-conception. "It is such a confounded bore to have to act one part endlessly," American anthropologist Elsie Clews Parsons wrote in her 1914 Journal of a Feminist.

This prized ability to be more than one kind of person is both a font of conceptual freedom and a source of some great internal difficulty, as it isn't easy to rally unstable personae. You couldn't count on rebellious women to agree with one another, and you couldn't count on them to agree with their past selves. Economic disagreements were especially intense. Labor reformers argued that women needed a shorter workday on account of their role as reproductive vessels; individualist anarchists looked on in horror. In Britain, Labour Party activists demanded state payments for mothers; in 1914, writing in Margaret Sanger's anarchist journal Woman Rebel, Benita Locke responded with an article titled "Mothers' Pensions: The Latest Capitalist Plot." The anarchist Ada Nield Chew worried that the payments would be used to "command obedience," as indeed they were in some US states, where smoking or a lack of church attendance could get your mother's allowance pulled.

The second quote describes Manifesta, a defense of third-wave feminism:

Third-wave feminism was at its most compelling in its gamesome, confident presentation of the young female body—SLUT scrawled across the stomach; the combination of combat boots and baby-doll dresses. [Jennifer] Baumgardner and [Amy] Richards made the now-familiar case that women and girls can participate in consumer culture without becoming its victims. Barbie can be a figure on whom you practice giving abortions rather than a demon unleashed on the marketplace to sprinkle anorexia dust on infant girls. The market culture that envelops girls is theirs to manipulate and reclaim; it is, in the end, their culture, and it's wrong to pretend they'll be more whole without it.

This is beyond dispute, but it's also not enough for Baumgardner and Richards, who are most interested in something they call "political consciousness," by which they seem to mean earnest engagement with extant institutions. The authors of Manifesta are upset that older feminists don't invite younger feminists to panel discussions; they're also upset that younger feminists don't much seem to care. A woman who runs a popular webzine declares that she believes running the zine is "more effective than getting behind a politician or going to a march." "Indeed it could be," respond Baumgardner and Richards, "if she were proposing a Day of Pay Equity, sort of like Take Our Daughters to Work Day." Women are thus called on to signal that they are on board, to mark on their calendars a series of well-plotted "days" for civic engagement. The idea that a life might be well lived outside the purview of a firmly established movement seems not to have occurred to the authors.

Or perhaps the fear is that such a life would be misunderstood by the second-wavers Baumgardner and Richards are petitioning for acceptance.